Global warming forces Inuits to abandon swamped homes

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The Independent Online

Stripped to his shirt sleeves on a desolate Arctic beach, the hunter gazes over his disappearing world.

Stripped to his shirt sleeves on a desolate Arctic beach, the hunter gazes over his disappearing world.

The sun glitters on waves surrounding his island village. The town sits amid the ruins of dugouts his ancestors chipped from the permafrost when Pharaohs were building pyramids in the hot sands of Egypt.

Thousands of years ago, nomads chased caribou here across a now-lost land connection from Siberia, 100 miles away. Scientists believe those nomads became the first Americans. Now their descendants are about to become global warming refugees. The village is being swallowed by the sea.

"We have no room left here," says 43-year-old Tony Weyiouanna. "I have to think about my grandchildren. We need to move."

Weather dictates survival in the Arctic and native Alaskans are alarmed by a noticeable warming trend. Average temperatures have risen more than 4F (2.2C) since 1971.

This is still a very rustic village. Its forlorn breakwater of sandbags and rusting vehicles is often breached by storms. Recently, four homes tumbled into the sea while villagers huddled in the Lutheran church.

Fuel and water tanks teeter just a few strides from the brink. Another gale or two and the entire island – a half-mile at its widest, 10ft (3m) at its highest – could be inundated.

Mr Weyiouanna's ancestors simply would have loaded their dogsleds and mushed inland. But, in modern times, moving a town means Shishmaref's 600 residents must vote.

The US Army Corps of Engineers says the cost of moving will be at least $100m (£70m). Residents hope the government will pay, although state and federal officials say no relocation fund exists.

And it is an upheaval many Americans might face in coming decades. In June, the Bush administration submitted a report to the UN acknowledging for the first time that climate change is real and unavoidable. In Alaska, signs of warming are everywhere. Sea ice volume has declined 15 per cent and thinned from 10ft to 6ft in places. When ice disappears, so do the staple foods – whale, walrus, seal and waterfowl, even polar bear. Glaciers are retreating by 15 per cent and losing half their thickness every decade. Alaskan meltwater accounts for half of the worldwide sea level rise of 7.8in (19.8cm) in the past 100 years.

In nearby Barrow, one morning, rumours of seal and walrus sightings ricochet through town. Men hustle from offices to haul boats to the water's edge. Schoolchildren cycle along the beach, cradling rifles. Offshore, the concussion of what locals call "combat hunting" thumps for hours as the ghostly shadows of outboard launches swerve between glistening icebergs. Then the real work has to begin.

In his gravel yard, Eugene Brower unfolds a table padded with layers of grease-soaked cardboard and duct tape. He is surrounded by four walrus shot that morning, their whiskered heads still sporting ivory tusks. He carves out slabs of purple meat.

Then he saws the glistening tan blubber. Each fist-sized chunk – fat, skin and brown furry hide - is tossed into plastic pails for rendering.

"In this heat it should go fast," Mr Brower explains, his knife never pausing. "We eat it all. It's good for you. I've got 11 grandkids. I need to put meat on their tables."

Mr Brower, 56, mops his round face and bristly moustache with his T-shirt. "When it hit 70 this week, my neighbour bought a fan," he chortles.

His three-year-old adopted son, Andrew, frolics next to a boat Mr Brower made with sealskins. The skin boat, called an umiaq, should be seaworthy for a decade. In this heat, it may not last until Andrew's first hunt in five years' time.

The wisdom the old man shares with Andrew will be different from what he taught his older sons. "The ice is thinner. The air is warmer," Mr Brower said. "When you are out on the ice, you can see the steam rising. And that's something you don't want to see."

Back in Shishmaref, three village women open the Bingo Hall and stretch the Stars and Stripes across the wall. They tack a sample ballot to the door.

It reads: "Do you want to relocate the Community of Shishmaref?" To vote, "Mark an X to the right of Yes or No."

No hanging chads here.

An hour ticks by. Winfred Obruk wanders in. He drops his ballot into the locked box, tapping the lid twice for emphasis. At 63, he says he is ready to abandon the only home he's known. "There's nothing else we can do," he said. "The storms make you feel kind of small. It feels odd to move, but that's nature."

For a valid referendum, Shishmaref needs 40 per cent of its 341 registered voters to cast ballots. The village's median age is about 20. Most youths stay up late hunting, playing video games or cruising the beach on ATVs. By mid-afternoon, some were rousted to vote. They want to go anywhere, it seems.

"I went to school on the mainland," said Leona Goodhope, 19, "and when I came back, my house was gone. They moved it to the other side of the village, or it would've fallen in."

A new village probably would have indoor plumbing, refuse collection and upgraded telecommunications for better e-mail and television but not everyone is eager. Clifford Weyiouanna, 60, pointed to recent improvements – a school extensions, a tannery, an automated laundry. And what about the cemetery?

"My mother and grandmother are in there," he said. "This is where they were born and lived. I think maybe they should stay here."

At 8pm, the election judges hand-count the ballots. Outside, a slightly impatient crowd is gathered for bingo.

The vote: 161-20. Shishmaref will move. Nobody cheered, nobody smiled.

The island still could be used as a summer fishing camp, said Tony Weyiouanna. He will co-ordinate relocation.

"We will be putting money into the move," he said, "and not pouring it into the sea."

The vote means the release of $1m in federal funds to examine the relocation's impact on potential mainland sites.

And where is the favoured spot for the expensive and heart-rending move?

Five miles east.